Black Caucus bills include important police reforms

Legislation contains “four pillars”: police and criminal justice reform, education reform, health care and human services reform, and expansion of economic opportunity.

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The Illinois state Capitol

Seth Perlman/AP

Important reforms that have been simmering on the back burner too long are part of an ambitious legislative package the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus filed over the last week in Springfield.

Illinois can’t afford to shove these issues into the background once again.

The legislation was filed in the form of a 611-page amendment after more than 100 hours of hearings held by the Black Caucus. It contains “four pillars”: police and criminal justice reform, education reform, health care and human services reform, and expansion of economic opportunity.

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Some lawmakers, with justification, are complaining about having 611 pages of proposed legislation dropped on them in the final days of a lame-duck session. We’re talking about bold proposals that, quite reasonably, could be subject to numerous last-minute revisions or rejection.

But as introduced, the legislative package includes many sound reforms that we hope will make their way to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

We are particularly enthusiastic about three proposals for police reform: a statewide standard on police use of force; ending “qualified immunity” for police officers, which often leaves people whose constitutional rights have been violated with no recourse, and repealing the affidavit requirement for making police complaints.

  • A statewide standard on use of force should include barring chokeholds, in which officers use an arm or leg to restrain someone’s neck, sometimes making it impossible for the restrained person to breathe. Other provisions would require generally issuing warnings before deadly use of force, using deadly force only in defense of human life and expanding the collection of data on when force has been used.
  • “Qualified immunity” is a legal Catch-22 that leaves many victims of police misconduct with little recourse through civil lawsuits, except in notorious cases that offend public opinion. Police groups worry that ending qualified immunity would leave individual police officers financially vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits, but at the end of the day, government agencies — not the officers themselves — still will be the ones who pay legal costs and any judgments against police officers. Ending qualified immunity would give police departments and local governments a strong incentive to end police abuses.
  • As this editorial board long has argued, requiring people to sign affidavits just to make a complaint against police officers deters people who fear retribution.

The Black Caucus is pushing the larger package of legislation — the four pillars — Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford of Maywood told us, because the aim is to address not only police reform but also the underlying social problems that roll downhill until they land in the laps of law enforcement.

“Each of our four pillars builds on one another,” Lightford said.

Among the key proposals included in the other three pillars — all of which have merit but have raised legitimate concerns — are the following:

Health care and human resources: The Black Caucus proposes, among other health care reforms, that Illinois eliminate the involvement of managed care organizations — similar to HMOs — for services covered by Medicaid. Many lawmakers say managed care organizations have not performed adequately, but unwinding their involvement is extraordinarily complicated. Do it wrong, and you jeopardize $1 billion in Illinois’ annual Medicaid funding.

Economic opportunity. This pillar seeks, among other priorities, to address the problems of food deserts, predatory lending, criminal background checks for hiring and housing, diversity in state contracting, access to capital and replacing water service lines made of lead. But at a time when Illinois is awash in red ink, the legislation does not make clear where the money to replace lead pipes would come from.

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Education: This pillar, which was approved by the Senate on Monday and now goes back to the House for concurrence, would provide more assistance for marginalized students and change certain policies that have had a disparate impact on students of color. Among other measures, it would, subject to finding the funding, provide grants for additional K-12 resources and opportunities for Black students.

Children entering kindergarten would be more rigorously assessed for literacy, language, mathematics, and social and emotional development skills — all information that might help schools improve teaching. But the bill prohibits the assessment from being used to prevent a child from enrolling in kindergarten or as the sole measure to determine whether a student should be promoted to the next grade.

Some teachers worry the assessment process would take away from instructional time for pre-schoolers.

Taken as a whole, the four pillars amount to “big, bold action that leads to progress for Illinois,” State Sen. Elgie R. Sims Jr. told us. And while we think each of the proposals demands close and careful scrutiny — 611 is a lot of pages — we applaud the holistic approach the Black Caucus is taking.

Illinois needs bold action, carefully designed. We shouldn’t keep waiting.

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